Building an Organization with Truly Human Leadership

It’s often been said that the most successful managers are cutthroat businessmen who lead their organizations with power and authority. But what if managers thought of their employees less like pieces in a chess game and more like their own kids? For Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, running a company is just like running a family, and he wants to add more personality and trust to the future of work.

What is human leadership?

Bob’s big idea is truly human leadership, but it hasn’t always been that way. When his company was busy acquiring others in the 1990s, he saw the energy drain from his new employees as they got closer to work time. That’s when he began to question why business couldn’t be more fun. At the same time, Bob began seeing each of his employee as a precious child of their parents who were trusting Bob to give their child a good life and work experience. From the idea of making work fun and enjoyable and treating employees like precious children, the idea of human leadership was born. In this scenario, the entire organization is run like a family, and managers are referred to as leaders. To Bob, a leader is someone who is a steward over the lives of the people he is entrusted with, while a manager is a rule enforcer who is focused on the bottom line, not on people.

As Bob adopted this new approach to leadership, he realized that it was a new mindset for many people. After all, nearly every business school teaches management skills, not leadership skills. In Bob’s view, traditional management practices were profoundly negatively impacting millions of lives. Bob considers parenting to be the best kind of leadership, so he threw out the things he learned in school and went with his gut. As he did with his own children, he started caring about each employee’s growth and development personally and professionally and showed them appreciation on a regular basis.

A culture of caring

Bob’s new idea of human leadership took off and has become a hallmark of the Barry-Wehmiller culture for the past few decades. The organization is considered a top place to work not because of the perks that it provides employees but because of the caring and supportive environment.

“When we started caring about each team member, they started caring about each other,” Bob says. “We genuinely care about the people, and we show it through our actions.”

While some organizations treat their employees as part of an alliance — just people who can help them get to a greater career or monetary goal — Bob views his organization as a family. Employees support each other, collaborate, and are more excited to come to work when they feel valued and appreciated. The unique culture is palpable to everyone who visits the offices — employees and visitors alike all say they have never seen a culture quite like what exists at Barry-Wehmiller. One important aspect of the caring culture was helping employees feel listened to. By creating a dialogue with every employee, Bob and other leaders realized things they never would have thought of and were able to make changes to the structure and policies of the company that included all employees and made their work experience more enjoyable and pleasant.

Establishing trust

The idea of trust within an organization is often thrown around, and Bob says it is one of the most important aspects of a successful organization. At Barry-Wehmiller, it isn’t up to employees to prove they are trustworthy, it’s up to the organization to show employees that they are trusted. Trust is a byproduct of caring that is hard to establish and easy to destroy. Trust first comes from a sense of leadership — if an organization or a leader cares for an employee, the employee will naturally start to trust the organization. Even in a changing world where employees might not stay with an organization for their entire career, leaders can still trust their employees and care for them for however long they are with the organization.

Taking a truly human leadership approach to organization structure has proven to be very successful for Barry-Wehmiller with both the bottom line and employee morale. For decades, Bob Chapman has worked to integrate leadership into every aspect of his company because leaders who are stewards to the people around them are needed at every level of an organization. Companies across all types of industries can enact similar change by switching the mindset from management to leadership, creating dialogue with employees, and putting care and trust in them. Like most organizations, Barry-Wehmiller is a work in progress, but a great example of what new thinking of human-based leadership can bring.

Jacob Morgan is a speaker, author and cofounder of The Future of Work Community. Subscribe to his newsletter or visit TheFutureOrganization.